CLEVELAND — The Nationals had Stephen Strasburg and the Indians had Corey Kluber. Sounds like a mismatch.
It wasn’t. At least not the way most would think.
“Kluber Lang,” as he is called by teammates in reference to Mr. T’s “Clubber Lang” character in “Rocky III,” traded blows with Washington’s phenom right-hander Sunday at Progressive Field. And in the end it was Kluber and the Indians still standing — owning a 2-0 victory.
Emerging from countless jams unscathed and with his fastball still reaching 95 mph in the eighth inning, Kluber outpitched Strasburg to help the Indians continue their recent winning ways.
Since going 4-16 with an eight-game skid, Cleveland has won four of five to climb back to .500, trailing first-place Detroit by 4½ games in the Central Division.
“Wow,” Cleveland manager Terry Francona said of Kluber, who allowed seven hits but didn’t walk a batter and struck out eight over eight innings. “He was so good all day. From pitch one, he was aggressive with his fastball. He was in attack mode. That was really fun to watch.
“Right in front of our eyes, we’re seeing a kid emerge into a really good pitcher.”
Kluber, 27, didn’t even make the roster out of spring training, with left-hander Scott Kazmir beating him out for the final spot in the rotation. But since filling in for an injured Brett Myers, Kluber (5-4, 3.58 ERA) has gotten increasingly better.
He has allowed more than three runs in just two of his 10 starts, surrendering one or fewer in three of his last four outings.
“I think I’m making adjustments quicker now,” Kluber said. “Gaining confidence is big. I’m just being aggressive, trying to pound the strike zone and put the pressure on the hitters.”
That much was on display in the rubber match of a three-game series, with Kluber not only having to overcome Strasburg and Washington hitters, but shoddy defense that left him in two dicey situations.
A throwing error on outstanding fielder John McDonald put runners on first and third with no outs in the fourth inning, and Kluber struck out Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond to end the threat.
After an error on first baseman Mark Reynolds left Kluber in the same situation in the sixth, he struck out Ryan Zimmerman and got a double play to keep the Indians in front 1-0.
Kluber got himself into a jam in the seventh after allowing a bloop double to Werth to start the inning. He hit Desmond with a pitch and then failed to field a sacrifice bunt on a diving attempt that left the bases full with no outs.
Kluber got out of it again when Reynolds snared a line drive from Jhonatan Solano to start a double play and Roger Bernadina grounded out.
“We didn’t help him out defensively,” Reynolds said. “He pitched unbelievable. He was fun to play behind. That impressed me.”
Strasburg (3-6, 2.50) was not surprisingly rusty after leaving the disabled list to make his first start since May 31. But he was still good over five innings, allowing a run on one hit and four walks.
“He didn’t look like he was commanding his fastball, which was kind of expected,” Francona said.
Cleveland broke a scoreless tie in the fourth when Jason Kipnis walked, stole second, moved to third on a throwing error, then rode home on a one-out single from Carlos Santana.
The Indians’ other run came off right-hander Craig Stammen in the eighth. Michael Bourn led off with a double and advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt from Mike Aviles before Kipnis drove him in with a sacrifice fly.
But it was pitching, namely Kluber, that carried the day for the Indians, who have begun to emerge from their losing funk thanks in large part to quality performances from the rotation.
“We always stayed the course,” Bourn said. “In any season, you’re going to go through stretches like that. Pitching always wins. It’s been that way since Day 1 and it’s always going to be like that. Kluber’s why we won. There’s no doubt about that.
“He’s been a lights-out pitcher for us. Hopefully, he gets some All-Star votes. He’s growing up in front of us, and we need it.”
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.